Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

When People are Troublesome

Here’s a very useful line of thought which I got from Alain du Botton. It goes like this. When small babies are grumpy, shouty or otherwise horrible, we check their nappies, burp them, see if they need to sleep, or we feed them. We wonder if they are teething. More often than not, what’s wrong can be put right. When adults are inexplicably funny with us, we infer meaning, and we get unhappy too and that seldom fixes anything.

Low blood sugar, insufficient sleep, trapped wind, and countless other simple body issues affect the moods of adults, too. On top of that we have all our baggage to lug about as well. For some time now, I’ve tried to factor this in when dealing with people. Sometimes I can just go for simple physical interventions to see if it helps, sometimes I just imagine that the reason a person is odd isn’t about me, but about them. At the very least, it helps me not to make worse an already awkward situation.

I’ve started applying it to myself as well. If I know I’m being crappy and short tempered, I check through for obvious physical things, and try things that might alleviate problems. If I know there’s a problem with me – for example if I’m in a lot of pain – I say so, in the hopes that the people around me will know not to take me too personally. I tell the people who live with me if I’m bleeding, or I think I’m pre-menstrual, so they know what’s going on. Hopefully, this helps. It certainly helps me take better care of me.

I think part of the problem is that we’ve inherited a culture that thinks body things are vulgar and not to be mentioned. We can’t tell people we’re menstruating! Or constipated! The horror! Instead we are to present a stiff upper lip and pretend everything is fine. Of course this means a lot of stuff comes out sideways. There’s nothing like trying to pretend you don’t feel awful for making a person over react to small things gone awry.

If we’re allowed to be honest about body issues, we can be kinder to each other. We can understand each other better and not build up layers of overthinking and anxiety around our interactions. If we assume that as grown up people we are basically big babies, we may be better able to recognise when someone just needs a pat on the back.

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The language of Madness

I’ve been conscious for a while now that abelist language is a thing, and that how we talk about various forms of disability, and how we use it as metaphor needs keeping an eye on. As a person with mental health issues, how should I talk about madness?

It is important to me to talk about it. I don’t feel at ease with more clinical language, I want to talk experientially and about feelings. I think if I want to describe myself as having been ‘bat shit crazy’ then that’s ok. There’s issues about reclaiming words and undermining them as insults.

It’s difficult at the moment because cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and there seem to be a lot of people who would rather, for example, contrive complex conspiracy theories about how someone has made a hurricane happen rather than deal with the issue of climate change. What do we call that aside from madness? In psychological terms, the line between sane and not sane is all about functionality. I see so many people who are so in denial about environmental issues, that they are not functional. It might even be technically accurate to refer to this as insanity.

We’re collectively quick in the wake of a mass killing to talk about the killer’s mental health problems (when we’re talking about a white guy). The major problem with this is that it can lead to the impression that mentally ill people are dangerous. In practice, most of us pose no risk to anyone but ourselves. The trouble is that not all forms of madness are created equally.

I’m conscious that there are many Pagan practices which, in their ecstatic and dramatic extremes, take a person out of consensus reality and into something the consensus considers insane – hearing and seeing that which others do not, knowing things from this experience… conversations about shamanism especially, and madness have been going on for some time.

I’m also conscious of the madness of creativity. Again, it’s an ecstatic form, wild, deranged, visionary, extreme, profoundly dysfunctional and potentially life wrecking, but also able to think otherwise unthinkable things and bring beauty into the world. The risk of talking about this in terms of madness is that we romanticise and make attractive the kinds of experiences that can also kill people.

Along the way I’ve known a number of people whose relationship with reality has, by anyone’s standard, broken down dramatically at some point. In some cultures, this would have made them holy, important, their experiences re-framed as something significant to their community. Even in Christian history we see space, historically, for the holy fool, the mad mystic. When did we collectively decide that madness was a shameful thing that should be locked away, hidden from sight and never spoken of? And more recently, medicated out of sight? I know that the vast majority of low level mental health issues – depression and anxiety – are caused by our workplaces and other stressors like poverty and insecurity. We are to tidy it up and hide it away and not deal with the sick systems creating it.

Madness takes many forms. Some of its forms are so hideous and destructive that there’s nothing we can currently do except institutionalise the sufferers. Some years ago I knew someone who worked in that kind of environment. We’re still hiding the worst of it under the social rug, and most of us have no idea what goes on. Changing what we call it can just be a new way of hiding it from ourselves.

I can’t find any easy edges around when and how we should be talking about madness, and when we shouldn’t use that kind of language, because so much of what I see around me is itself insane. I think we need to be more willing to talk about the madness inherent in the system. Madness is not just something that happens to you, it can be the direct consequence of a deliberate choice not to deal with reality. Say and for example, by being in denial about what all the violent weather might possibly mean.


Jumping through hoops

Trigger warnings: exploring abuse.

Sometimes the goals just keep moving, always staying that bit ahead of you so that you can never make the grade. No matter how hard you try, how good you are, how well you do the things you were told to do, the goal shifts with you and you never reach it.

I think back to playground games, and the desperate, uncool kid I was, trying to be good enough. It doesn’t matter how often you’re useful in that context, how often you let them do the things they want to do, you never earn a place as a cool kid. There are plenty of adults still playing this game, in workplaces, in families, in social groups. Hurt yourself for our amusement and there may be a place for you. Now demean yourself for us. Now grovel.

At least with the moving goalpost game you can see the goal, and you can watch it move, and sooner or later you can spot this and recognise it for what it is. The unwinnable game is just that, the only way to win it is to quit, and that’s a simple enough lesson to learn. Anyone trapped into playing it stands a chance of getting themselves out again.

The invisible hoop game is much, much worse. I guess there’s nothing really wrong with situations that ask us to jump through hoops – that’s the school system in a nutshell. It’s part of how employment works. Do the things, get the rewards. Sticks and carrots all the way. However, the invisible hoop game doesn’t let you know what you have to do. There will be hoops, and you are expected to jump through them, but with no information as to where those hoops are or what they require.

Generally speaking, a person in an invisible hoop game will find out what the score is only when they have failed to jump through a hoop. They have failed to magically know what was wanted of them. They were not psychic, they did not predict the future. They will be punished for having failed to jump through the right hoop at the right moment.

This happens a lot in abusive relationships. Of course you were supposed to know that today they wanted to sleep in/get up an hour early/have breakfast bought to them in bed. It is your fault for not packing the thing they wanted, not ordering the thing they’d run out of, not mending the thing you did not know was broken. You are too noisy, too quiet, too sociable, too morose, too happy, too sad. You are making them feel something you weren’t supposed to make them feel. And now they are angry. For some people (more often than not, it happens to women) this is where the physical violence starts. You didn’t jump through the invisible hoop, and that makes it ok to hurt you. Or it may be that you are shouted at, told off, humiliated or ridiculed instead.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the physical consequences. The psychological consequences run much deeper. For some people, this will be a whole life issue as a consequence of childhood abuse. Some of us are trained to it later. If you have played the invisible hoop game, you can never entirely relax. You’ll always be looking for the invisible hoops. In all situations, with everyone, a part of your mind is watching out for clues that there’s a hoop with your name on it. A part of your mind is watching for the danger signs that you didn’t jump when you should have done. Underneath all of this, lingers the suspicion that any decent, normal person would be able to see these hoops and jump through them. You can’t, and you think that’s because you are crap, careless and not willing to try hard enough. Rather than running away, you blame yourself, and try harder.

Time in safe spaces can reduce the fear. It can get easier not to be looking for hoops all the time. I don’t know if it ever entirely goes away.


The menoporpoise

It isn’t a pause. Nothing has stopped, and the ‘pause’ bit technically refers to stopping bleeding, which may be years away for me.

Peri-menopausal is an awkward mouthful of a term, it’s not something I can live inside. It does nothing for me.

So far, the material I’ve found has just flagged up all the bad bits. There’s nothing I can work with. Nothing I feel empowered or encouraged by. I suspect this is because our culture values youth and sexual fertility in women, and not age or wisdom.

As a practical point, my skin now takes offence at everything, including my own sweat. I seem to spend a lot of time slinking off to the bathroom to wash afflicted regions. Water is fine. This leads me to the logical conclusion that I am trying to transform into an aquatic mammal, and this in turn brings me very naturally to the menoporpoise.

I see the menoporpoise as friendly and benevolent, but not always convenient. It means well, but it is in essence a large aquatic mammal trying to swim about inside my life, and sometimes that’s going to be complicated. We will have to learn to get along, the menoporpoise and I.

Our lives and experiences are informed and shaped by the language we use and the stories we tell. How we name things, how we talk of them is important stuff. For easily a year now, my body has been changing. I don’t want the cultural narratives of menopause. But perhaps I can work with a menoporpoise and change into something new.


In the aftermath of anxiety

A panic attack can be a rather self announcing thing. It has inherent drama, so it can be possible for people not experiencing the panic to tell that something is going on. However, the aftermath of a panic attack is also a difficult time, and it is far harder to see what’s going on then, so I thought it might be a useful thing for me to talk about.

The physical symptoms can persist. Raised heart rate, tight chest, difficulty breathing – these things can go on for hours, even days after a big panic attack. It feels awful and can lead to the fear that something has gone wrong at a bodily level. I’ve never been clear how you’re supposed to tell between panic and heart attack warning signs. Those of us who suffer panic are told to ignore what others are told to take seriously.

There can be a huge emotional backlash. It invariably leaves me feeling like I’m stupid, irrational and I’m embarrassed by my loss of control. I hate not being able to control what I’m doing. I get anxious that people will not take me seriously, or will think it’s a stunt, a bid for attention, an attempt at emotional blackmail. Often as a consequence I will become withdrawn afterwards, especially when I don’t know how people are responding to me.

Once panic has been triggered, it is easier to re-panic me. This can lead to incredibly vicious cycles where it gets ever harder to stop panicking. Without calm and respite, panic can get seriously out of control.

Exhaustion is a common part of the backlash. Emotional and bodily exhaustion can be severe and can last for days. The desire to just down tools and go to bed is huge. When things are really bad, a massive panic attack can result in the no energy, not coping outcome of a big round of depression.

If you are dealing with a person who suffers from panic, then the best way to find out how to help them is to ask. On the whole, taking people seriously and treating them kindly makes a lot of odds. However, as panic is often related to abuse experiences, make sure that what you do to help doesn’t seem controlling, doesn’t give the sufferer the feeling that they are so useless they can’t take care of themselves, doesn’t patronise or demean them. Those of us who are ok with being touched can be significantly soothed through long hugs, but never hug without asking. Unsolicited body contact can be a panic trigger. Bring drinks, reduce noise, remove threats, talk calmly, give space and time.

Triggers are tricky things. Someone else’s triggers may make no sense to you, and you may feel that the time it takes them to recover is unreasonable. This is because it isn’t your trigger, or your history, or your body, and it is important to bear that in mind when dealing with someone in distress.


Negotiated relationships

(trigger warnings, some domestic abuse content)

One of the big problems, as I see it, with straight, vanilla type relationships is that people assume a lot. If you think you are normal, and that your partner is normal, it is easy to assume you want the same things. This results in at best a lack of communication, it can lead to frustration, boredom and at the worst end, people doing things to each other that weren’t welcome or wanted. My impression is that people whose sexual education was watching porn can have some odd assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ as well.

People who come from a kink and/or polyamoury background tend to know that what they want might well not be what anyone else wants. I think it’s also true for LGBT folk – who don’t start out thinking they are the default setting, or assuming that the people they encounter will want the same things. Straight people can be surprised when other people turn out not to be straight.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what straight monogamy looks like. These stories tend to focus on the establishment of the relationship and then it all gets vague about how you keep it going. Negotiation isn’t a feature. Our culture has stories of power over, or commercial bargaining, but not much at all about relationship negotiation.

In my experience, negotiating clearly is a good idea in any relationship – professional, romantic, sexual, platonic… whatever you’ve got, it pays to talk about it and not to assume you know what the other person thinks or feels.

The thing is that in practice, most of the straight and monogamous people I’ve encountered along the way have not all thought, felt and wanted the same things, even while plenty of them seemed very confident that they were just normal and like everyone else.

One of the great relationship myths is that we should magically know what our significant other person thinks and feels. Most of us don’t. If we don’t say to each other what we think and feel and then get cross with each other for not knowing – that way lies only misery.

Most of us do not fit neatly together. What we think and feel, what we want and desire does not always align neatly. If we deal with this through power, the one with most power forcing their choices on the one with least power, that way lies misery and abuse. If we take a commercial approach – I will do this if you will do that – we find ourselves in situations where people repeatedly do something they don’t want to do. There’s usually a power aspect. I will buy you the winter coat you need if you will consent to be tied up and beaten, is not in fact a fair exchange, or a consenting situation, but this kind of thing happens a lot. It is a way of abusing someone while convincing the victim that they have consented and have no recourse.

Negotiation means finding the answers everyone can be okay with, only doing the things everyone wants to do. It means taking the risk of finding that there isn’t room for what you want. It requires the vulnerability of being honest without taking control to push your wants onto others. It means care, respect, an open heart, a willing ear, the desire to understand and co-operate with the other person. It means wanting an outcome that does not hurt or diminish anyone else. Even if you try that and can’t do it very well at first, the outcomes are far better than any other approach.


Time off, regardless of the behaviour

I’m not really here. The internet is very good at letting me appear to be here when in fact I am not. If all has gone to plan, I may not even have climbed out of the duvet as you read this. I wrote this blog last week, when I was plotting my time off.

One of the things I have learned the hard way is that I can’t work an event over a weekend and then get straight back into a regular working week and expect to function. So, this year, after spending the bank holiday weekend at a massive and wonderful steampunk event in Lincoln, I will spend the next day recovering. Recovery time is essential to mental and physical health, to concentration, productivity, efficiency and getting to be a person. I’ve stopped treating it like some kind of luxury and started recognising it as essential.

I’ve also noticed how much my thinking is affected by time off. I think better when I get decent breaks from doing that. I am more likely to have good ideas when I’m not especially trying to have good ideas.  There’s a definite correlation between downtime and creativity.

I’ve also learned over the last few years that I’d been under-estimating how much time I need to process big emotional experiences. Emotions take energy. Suppressing them takes even more energy. Making space for them is good. I have a better head if I make space for the feels.

As I write this, I know Asylum will be full of feels. There are lots of people I adore and don’t see very often at all. Some only at this event, in fact. There are people involved I would go so far to say that I love, and spending time around them will impact on me hugely. I’m taking out two public displays, one to try and get people involved in The Hopeless Vendetta, and one song based performance, and that’s going to have an emotional impact. No doubt there will be things I didn’t see coming – there always are.

Time to reflect, to absorb, process, make sense, digest – whatever needs doing – is essential. I don’t want to be bouncing carelessly, thoughtlessly from one experience to another. I want to live a considered life. Often that requires more time in the duvet, just chewing things over.


Making space for the feels

For much of my life, I’ve had external pressures making me feel emotionally unacceptable. Along the way I’ve been mocked, shamed, humiliated and punished for expressing my feelings. I’ve loved people dearly only to find them horrified by any expression of my loving them dearly. I’ve been told my expressed emotions are so extreme as to seem fake. Ridiculous, over the top, drama queen, attention seeking… you get the idea.

And so I learned to mute myself. To not say a good 90% of whatever I feel. To understate, make tame and easy and comfortable everything that goes on inside me. I’ve crushed myself to avoid having to deal with others crushing me. I’ve known for a long time that this process, whether it comes from within or without, has a ghastly effect on my mental health. But I’ve also learned how to put a poker face on and hide that as well. It seems fair to assume that the people who habitually dismissed me would also dismiss mental breakdowns as further attention seeking and fuss making.

In recent years I have benefited from safer and more supportive space and it has allowed me to stretch and experiment a little. I find that if I make some space for me in which I can be totally honest about how I feel, that I don’t take damage. Often this means getting some time alone (bathrooms are excellent for this) and holding a few minutes of space where I can feel the unacceptable thing. Anger, frustration, resentment, envy, bitterness – these are often the most trouble to express. However, I can have a fair amount of trouble with joy, pain, sorrow… I’m still not easy about crying over films in company.

If I make some space for me, and properly acknowledge what I’m feeling and treat it with respect, then hiding it feels very different. I am not made smaller. I am not crushing myself.

There are a lot of things I cope with by bullshitting. Physical pain is a constant in my life. Depression and anxiety are often present in my head. I’m often short of energy. I don’t find that dwelling on these helps me, and I prefer, for my own dignity and comfort, to put a good face on it. But this also means that most people are dealing with my fakery, and have no idea what’s really going on. Recently I’ve been experimenting with saying how things are but acting as I normally act. I’m working out who responds well to that information, who shares honestly in return, and who says ‘how are you?’ as a social gesture expecting ‘fine thank you how are you’ as the only possible reply. Because it’s not about genuine care, it’s about presenting socially in the right way.

I also find that where I make space deliberately for other people to be honest with me, and they take me up on that, I feel more confident about expressing myself. It gets easier to do the good stuff, too. To be exuberant, wholehearted, affectionate, to laugh wildly, and all those things, in the company of people who have room for it. Once again I find myself obliged to point out that mental health problems require community solutions. I did not get into that mess alone, I have not got out of it alone.


Owls and flowers, a divided self

I first encountered Blodeuwedd as a child, and was instantly struck by the woman who is made of flowers and turned into an owl. From very early on I understood flowers as pretty, delicate, socially acceptable femininity. Owls were clearly dangerous – night creatures, predators, pointy and unacceptable. I was already encountering issues with my own unacceptability.

Through my teens, I focused on trying to keep the flower face visible, and to hide my owls. I found that my ideas, passions, hungers, needs were all things the people around me didn’t much like. I tucked them away. Somewhere around that time I also encountered the language of seelie and unseelie, and that seemed like a good match, too. I have my acceptable, hard working, house elf seelie self, and my dark, unspeakable other half. I became increasingly troubled by my unseelie owl side, and kept on squashing it down.

It’s only as that side of me resurfaces that I properly appreciate what it is. Much of my confidence, my ease in my own body, my sexuality and passion is tied up with my unseelie side. Wicked humour, and a willingness to be considerably less gentle with people who mess me about. Self defence, and self assertion, going after what I want and need for me, rather than what everyone else wants and needs… these are the things a younger me deemed unacceptable and hid away in the darkness and did not speak of.

The best of my creative energy comes from the parts of me that I’ve deliberately suppressed. Perhaps it has an impact on my physical energy too – that remains to be seen. My scope to be fierce, intense, full on, and to feel more wholly myself is part of what I have called my unseelie side.

I have ventured to let parts of this out before, in brief, uneasy forays, and then watched people I loved back away from me. I had considered this part of me unlovable. This time, as I’ve started easing off the mute button, and taking off the flower mask, I’ve found welcome and encouragement for what’s underneath. This is the point in the story when I get to say yes, you wanted me to be flowers, because that was easy and convenient for you. I am not what you wanted to turn me into. I am myself, and I have claws.


Intuition, ill health and uncertainty

As a much younger human, I trusted my intuition, but through my twenties I became ever less able to do so. For a long time I’ve had incidents that make it difficult to tell what I’m dealing with.

Anxiety will tell you that something is terribly wrong. Depression will tell you that there’s no point even trying, it’s all hopeless. Stress will tell you that you have to keep going, flat out no matter what. Problems with bodily health can feel like psychic attacks, premonitions or signs. If you start buying into these as intuitions of the truth, what you do is reinforce whatever is wrong with you. But at the same time, none of these conditions turn your intuition off, so that can also mean missing important insights.

I don’t think intuition is a ‘woo-woo’ issue, at least not all the time. We take in vast amounts of information – far more than we are consciously aware of. We do most of our processing unconsciously. Thus often what we experience as a magic thing happening, is really our brains having worked through what we’d got. Those ping moments of inspiration, eureka, and intuition aren’t at odds with reasoned thinking, they’re just one mechanism amongst many. At the same time, if your take on reality has room for truly magical things to happen, well, sometimes what we intuit can be so far removed from what we had information about, that this seems plausible.

The question remains, how to tell one from another? Just because you’re feeling anxious, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean nothing is crushing you down.  In the last few years I’ve let go of the idea that my intuition is totally broken, unreliable and best ignored, and started making space for it. I’ve started trying to tease out those threads of mental health, hormonal activity, body feelings and so forth to get a better picture of what’s going on in my life.

I’ve come up with a couple of things I think are useful. Firstly, checking in with someone else. Most mental health issues make it difficult to trust your own judgement or perceptions. If there’s a person you really trust, being able to run things past them can be helpful. Am I being paranoid? What’s the most likely source of this experience? What’s your perception? It is worth being wary because two people intent on out-wooing each other can build layer upon layer of imagined things and end up convinced that they’re at the centre of a magical war or some such (I do not jest, I’ve seen it happen). If you can help each other think critically, all well and good. If not, it may do more harm than good.

My other solution is to give my intuition defined outlets – divination tools to play with where the interpretations do not depend so much on my own mental state. Oracle cards are great for this. It gives me a cross reference for the body feeling. Do the cards reinforce what I’m experiencing, or are they at odds with it, or do they cast the whole thing in a different light? It’s also a way of honouring and making space for my intuition rather than wholly distrusting it, and I feel better for being able to do that.